Not Endangered: CITES or IUCN?

In an article on Channel NewsAsia (“RWS forecasts 17 million visitors for 2013”, by Dylan Loh, 7th December 2012), the Chairman of Genting Group and Resorts World Sentosa, Mr Lim Kok Thay, said in response to the recent dolphin controversy:

“These are really not endangered species, so it is really no different from, if you want to put it, the panda bears…”

In another article on the same day in TodayOnline (“Bottlenose dophins ‘not endangered’: Genting Group chairman”, by Neo Chai Chin), he was quoted:

“I cannot emphasize enough that the dolphins we are talking about are definitely not on the endangered list,” he said, citing how some have perceived otherwise.

This confusion over what is endangered and what is not arises from someone either having a lazy mind and tongue, or making the common, tiresome mistake of using listing on the Appendices of CITES instead of the the IUCN Red List assessments.

CITES stands for “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora”, but just because there is the word “endangered” in the acronym does not make it an authority for deciding if a species is endangered. CITES is essentially an agreement on trade restriction. There are three lists or “Appendices” in CITES. Appendix I means no import/export unless under really exceptional circumstances. Appendix II means trade must be tightly controlled. Appendix III means a country has asked for assistance in regulating the trade of that species. Whether a species is listed on which of its Appendices depends on bargaining between government representatives, which are swayed by conservation NGOs and lobbyists employed by corporations. Listed species may or may not be threatened/endangered.

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species is the correct look-up source for conservation status at the global level. There are various categories, including “Data Deficient” which means there is not enough data but does not mean that the species is not threatened (but usually data deficient = little known = rare = very few left!!), and “Least Concern” which explicitly means not endangered. Of course, a species can be not yet assessed, which like Data Deficient means no one should make any proclamations whether it is or is not threatened. Species are assessed and given a status based on a working group of experts, usually biologists familiar with the populations or ranges of that group of species.

I was wondering which is the case that applies here (I certainly don’t want to be the one with a lazy mind or tongue!), since a while back, a Kirk Leech wrote in the Straits Times (“Sharks fins: one man’s delicacy, another’s poison pill”, 3 February 2011) that only three out of over 400 shark species are regulated by CITES, implying that the endangerment situation of sharks is being grossly exaggerated. A Jennifer Lee wrote back to the Straits Times Forum (“Who says sharks are not endangered?”, 8 February 2011), correcting him that the IUCN status should be used, and

…17 per cent of the world’s 1,044 shark species are threatened with extinction, and 47 per cent of shark species are data deficient.”

So let’s check: are “bottlenose dophins” endangered? There appears to be two species: the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dophin (Tursiops aduncus) and the common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), but I have no idea which is the one that Resorts World Sentosa is importing.

According to the IUCN Red List, the status of the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin is Data Deficient. The status of the common bottlenose dolphin is Least Concern. Assuming that RWS is importing the latter, then Lim is correct in saying that his dolphins are not endangered. Both are listed on Appendix II of CITES, which means RWS had to deal with the proper paperwork to get their dolphins through the customs.

Let’s check too: are pandas endangered?

According to the IUCN Red List, the status of the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is Endangered. (Incidentally, it is listed on CITES Appendix I, but China seems to be able to lend it out and back on its own will. Anyway the species is only found in China.)



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